Giant Balloon Inflation Area—West 77th to West 81st Street
Everyone loves a parade.
But not Allie Donovan.
Not just because she had passed two cops in full body armor—standing with submachine guns hoisted, right across the street from a vendor selling cotton candy, stuffed animals, and balloons.
A plush Hello Kitty purchase later, she continued walking—totally freezing to death!—in the kind of sleet and wind that had already turned her favorite umbrella into a mess of broken spokes. It was the fourth Wednesday in November and she was right outside the American Museum of Natural History—together with a bunch of news reporters, police, parade workers, and street vendors. All gathered at the staging ground where the giant balloons were being inflated.
This used to be a neighborhood secret. Not anymore.
Now the crowds came from all over. In another hour, Allie would see lines snaking around the museum, people packed like sardines, at least ten deep. It no longer attracted just Upper West Siders pushing bratzillas in double strollers. There would also be suits from the Upper East Side; yoga lovers from TriBeCa; granola-crunchers from Brooklyn; and slow-moving vacationers from flyover states. They would all keep coming, over the next seven hours, as eighteen giant characters sprang to life—from Paddington and Pikachu to SpongeBob and Spider-Man.
But right now Allie could still move—and so she did. She cut through the traffic, weaving left and darting right, passing Snoopy and Woodstock. They were bursting with helium but covered with net—itching to fly but sandbagged to the ground.
She passed the silver gas tanks that lined the park blocks, their black hoses feeding the balloons, making them grow bigger and bigger—until eventually they stood as tall as a New York City brownstone.
Then she stopped. Someone she'd been desperately trying to avoid had just seen her.
The woman under an oversized golf umbrella was charging straight toward her—a pink plastic smile frozen on her face. The crowd parted in front of her like she was Moses crossing the Red Sea.
They were smart to get out of her way. Because even when she wasn't wearing a black raincoat and boots with heels like stilts, Gwen Allensen always reminded Allie of a burnt matchstick.
Brittle—and prone to snap.
Allie clutched her broken umbrella and shrank as much as she could, deep into her bright purple rain slicker, silently willing Gwen to go away. She thought for the gazillionth time how it was stupid that her dad actually liked this woman. Then she thought of the advice Sam, their driver and all-around protector, had given her.
Treat her like you would an annoying bee: Just stand still and let her buzz on by. That's how you don't get stung.
Sam didn't like Gwen, either. Since he was a grown-up, he wasn't allowed to say so, but Allie had figured it out. Sam normally talked a mile a minute, but he clammed up the moment Gwen entered the car.
Gwen was already shaking her head. "Allie, what did you do to that umbrella?" she scolded, snatching it away.
Allie's heart sank. Nothing, she thought. The wind ruined it, no help from me.
She pulled her hood tighter and watched Gwen pull a new one out of her vast black-patent bag. It was drab olive green—ugly and small—and she offered it to Allie.
Allie made no move to take it.
With a tsk-tsk noise, Gwen reprimanded her. "You already look like a drowned rat! Most girls would want to look their best if they knew they were going to be on the news with their dad."
Allie wasn't most girls. Never had been and never would be. And who said she wanted to be on TV?
Today was what Dad called a command performance. That meant she had to show up, shut up, and smile—because he was dedicating Macy's newest balloon and all eyes would be on her. If she didn't look happy about it, people would notice—and talk—and it would be all over the evening news and tabloid papers.
"When I was your age, I cared how I looked!" Gwen continued.
Allie stared at a lipstick smudge on Gwen's teeth—neon pink staining white enamel—but she only said Thank you and took the umbrella. That was one of eight safe phrases she used in conversation with Gwen. The others were:
No, thank you.
I'm not hungry.
Can you close my door, please?
The phrases were polite—but without more, they were what Sam called conversation closers. Apparently, they discouraged dialogue and shut down social interaction, which was normally considered a bad thing—since part of growing up meant having the ability to talk politely and at length with people you couldn't stand. But Allie was in no hurry to grow up—and no one could shut down a conversation better than she could.
Today, she got lucky. Gwen saw a celebrity she wanted to interview, and suddenly she was off, jostling umbrellas and blowing perfumed air kisses.
Allie disappeared into the throng, and that was when it hit her: Something is wrong. She saw too many adults, not enough kids.
But she shook off her sense of foreboding as easily as the water from her raincoat. She thought: I'm only upset by Gwen.
She kept moving, stopping to gaze at the lifeless balloons. Hello Kitty had yet to take shape. The Aflac duck was a blob on the ground.
She turned the corner at West Seventy-seventh Street and walked past three local TV stations, their reporters and news vans all flanking Central Park West. Next was central command, where two dozen officers and a Homeland Security crew huddled in animated conversation under their tent.
Her eyes drifted briefly to her dad, who was wearing his dress uniform and his tensest expression. She recognized two of his advisers and the Counterterrorism team—and heard snatches of conversation. Phrases like threat level orange and close Central Park West.
Her gaze flicked to the park—and more armored cops carrying machine guns.
The traffic light turned green. Buses and yellow cabs flew by, wheels spinning through puddles and wipers thrashing double time.
Except the nonstop traffic wasn't the problem. The people were—dozens of them, coming on foot, arriving too fast. They were coming by subway, arriving in hordes.
Too many adults, not enough kids.
Allie walked faster and went left, where the balloon Dad was going to dedicate—Molly the Mongoose—was still a lump. She had admirers already gathering—fans of the wildly popular Go and Find Out, an educational cartoon based on the mongoose's motto.
Spider-Man was up next. Surrounded by blue slicker-clad helium workers, the giant balloon slowly started to take form. A separate team of nine inflators, all drenched in canary-yellow Macy's raincoats, struggled with his slippery upper body, finally connecting it to the silver tanker-truck parked in front of the Beresford. The gas started pumping—and in a matter of minutes, Spidey's long, stretched-out hand began to reach forward.
From an apartment at the Beresford, seven floors up, early Christmas lights twinkled and blinked. Foreheads were pressed against every glass window. How lucky they all were, Allie thought. They got a full view of the action but from a warm, dry, safe spot.
Dozens of cops were staring straight ahead, stone-faced.
Allie kept moving, because she didn't like these crowds. She felt better—a little safer—once she'd put some distance between herself and the rest of them.
Too many adults, not enough kids.
She passed by Toothless and the Wimpy Kid and reached Columbus Avenue. There more street vendors hawked candy and popcorn and neon glow sticks. And she remembered last year: when her mom bought her a purple wand, all sparkles and light, and it had felt like magic as it glowed.
Her throat closed up tight when she thought about her mom, and she started to choke up—so quick! she chased that memory away.
She must have still looked upset. A second later, a cop named Dale, who worked her dad's security detail, caught sight of her at the corner.
"Hey, Allie! You okay, sweetheart?"
"Yeah, just checking out the balloons." She lied without any second thought—because she couldn't possibly admit how much she missed her mom. Or how much the crowds were freaking her out. She'd be brought to her dad, and end up spending the whole afternoon squirming under his watchful, worried eye. Or—total horrors!—he might delegate her to Gwen.
There would be worried looks that meant Allie's still depressed. Or Allie doesn't have a perspective on things. Then there'd be a serious discussion about how it was very important to talk to someone. About her grief. About how holidays were hard.
But Dale's question had rattled something in her chest. She felt it as she drifted with the crowds, taking three steps at a time. Her heart was banging too fast.
A dozen officers were patrolling, their bodies tense, ready for anything.
She dodged different people in the growing crowd. Two women, tall and reed—thin, who wielded their umbrellas like Kendo swords. An old black man who shuffled by, leaning heavily on his cane. Three guys in Cornell sweatshirts, cracking jokes and laughing at SpongeBob. A family of five with a shrink-wrapped stroller who pushed past her, their sons sloshing through puddles.
They were all wet. Shivering. Sleet-shocked.
And Allie had counted six kids. Why don't I see more?
She wandered back to Spider-Man. His head was high in the air; his torso still sagged low to the ground.
A burst of wind caught her full in the face. She pulled her hood tight. Caught sight of a woman wearing a Macy's yellow rain slicker, standing by Spidey's fingers, staring straight at her.
She's going to say something to me.
Her hunch was all wrong.
A man with a black baseball cap collided into another man in a bright orange-and-blue Knicks jacket. As they veered into her space, Allie half fell on top of a running toddler. She caught herself—just in the nick of time—but his mother still shot her a dirty look and hustled him away among Spider-Man, Molly the Mongoose, and about three dozen people.
She saw her dad fighting his way toward Molly's staging area.
He was with people from Wholesome Minds, Molly's production-company—or the new rival to Disney, as everybody said.
It looked like he had decided to dedicate Molly ahead of schedule.
The crowds were really growing.
Not enough kids.
The sleet was coming down, small pinpricks of ice, and her breath made frost puffs in the air.
Dad climbed onto a podium, grabbed a microphone, and started talking. He said, "New York is my city. With more than eight million of us calling it home, we're going to disagree about some things. But the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is one of our oldest and most beloved traditions. The kind of tradition that brings us together, whatever our differences."
Allie only half paid attention; she'd heard it all before.
People who had been wandering among the balloons began to converge on this spot.
Crowding the sidewalks. Spilling onto Central Park West.
Cars honked and lights flashed. Somebody was going to get hit.
Dad was still talking. Saying it was always an honor to be here. Praising family. Thanking Macy's. Making jokes about this being the holiday to celebrate America, football, and Mom's apple pie.
Allie couldn't listen; she had to tune out. She knew it was his job. That the top cop had to say the right things. Had to work to heal what the press called the city's divisions. But she hated seeing her dad so politician—fake.
I don't like crowds. Not ones like this.
Her last hunch—about the woman staring—had missed the mark.
But her hunch about the crowds? That suddenly became all too real.
Police officers started yelling; they wanted spectators to form a line.
No one listened.
Another round of people emerged from the subway. More crowds, all gaining momentum. Soon joined by a small group of angry voices from Central Park West.
Police scum! Killer cops!
All around her, cops assumed defensive positions.
The chants were ugly. Because people tended to use hurtful words when they were upset. But Allie also thought: Sometimes people were mean. Like at school, when the popular girls called her Dumb Ass Allie.
Another shout: No more racist pigs!
Allie knew that pigs was a bad word for cops, so this couldn't be good.
Dad's advisers inched closer to him. One climbed onto the podium. She saw him whisper in Dad's ear.
The crowd began to chant. Don't shoot! Don't shoot! Don't shoot! DON'T SHOOT!
Dad always said it wasn't easy policing more than eight million people. Sometimes the NYPD got it wrong and people got mad. Usually they blamed him.
He was talking fast now, though his words were drowned out by the crowds.
Too many people, not enough kids.
More police reinforcements came. Outnumbered. Outmaneuvered.
They couldn't draw their weapons. There were still tourists. Some peaceful protesters. Some kids. Too many reasons not to escalate the situation.
Allie noticed a hooded teenager raise his fist in the air. He bumped it high, three times, like he was punching the sky. She thought: He can't be much older than me.
Suddenly a bottle was thrown. It landed about four feet from Dad. The impact launched a million shards of broken glass.
Then all Allie saw was a mass of moving bodies.
The adviser next to Dad gave a signal. Police officers linked arms to form a human chain. She felt sick when she realized: It was to protect all of them.
Tourists. Officials. Even—especially—Dad.
She tried to move closer to him.
So did the mayor.
Everybody was shoving one another.
Suddenly the mayor was nearing Dad's side.
The chant was growing louder. DON'T SHOOT! DON'T SHOOT!
Police cars were streaming onto Central Park West, sirens blaring and lights flashing. More reinforcements coming.
Meanwhile, Allie was mesmerized by the sea of bobbing heads. Protesters, but some were not the ordinary kind. They didn't care about free speech or "just being heard" or making a political point.
This was a mob.
The mob had surrounded a police car, trying to block it from passing Eighty-first Street.
Rioters rocked it two times.
Three. Four. Five.
On the count of six, they toppled it—and the mob cheered wildly.
Helicopters were approaching overhead.
Officers were shouting instructions. They wanted to separate the balloon-watchers from the mob—but in the sleet and wind and the commotion, it was hard to tell everybody apart.
Allie retreated toward Spider-Man. His inflation team was long gone, and only rioters surrounded him now.
She heard a whump behind her—as someone stabbed a knife into his polyurethane flesh.
At the same moment, she saw a flash of red and heard a sharp pop.
One second her dad was standing, yelling into his radio.
The next she saw him crumple and fall.
There was slick blood streaming down his face. Too much blood. It seemed to be everywhere—even on the mayor, and on Dad's adviser, even on the yellow-cloaked Macy's rep who had been standing, smiling, at the base of the podium at Dad's left.
She wanted to move, but her legs were frozen.
She wanted to scream, but no sound came out.
Most of all, she wanted to refuse to believe this was happening. She was dimly aware of another flash of yellow, then black-gloved hands approaching over her left shoulder, capturing her in a giant embrace. Those hands were sweet-smelling, scented with cinnamon and apples.
Allie was too shocked to resist. She couldn't—so she didn't bother.
She heard a hoarse whisper in her ear. "Don't look!"
She felt a prick in her neck. The putrid olive-green umbrella she had held dropped to the sidewalk.
Her knees went weak and wobbly.
She was being lifted. Then carried.
In the chaos and confusion, no one noticed.
And as she drifted into a warm, fuzzy haze—and the whisper in her ear murmured, "Don't worry, it will all be okay"—she no longer cared.
Excerpted from City on Edge by Stefanie Pintoff. Copyright © 2016 by Stefanie Pintoff. Excerpted by permission of Bantam Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.